Monday, August 24, 2009

"Faith without justice is meaningless": An interview with Fr. Manuel Plaza, SJ

Many articles and interviews are appearing with people who have been associated with the Jesuits who were killed in the massacre at the Universidad Centroamericana "José Simeón Cañas" (UCA) in San Salvador 20 years ago. This interview is with Fr. Manuel Plaza, SJ. Fr. Plaza is the director of the Centro Ignaciano Espiritualidad Ellacuría and the Comité Óscar Romero in Burgos, Spain.

By R. Pérez Barredo (English translation by Rebel Girl)
Diario de Burgos
August 23, 2009

The tall, affable man with snow-white hair and a luminous smile radiates the peace of the just. His clear and tempered speech brings one back to the essence of what Christ proclaimed: justice, dignity, solidarity, dialogue, and love are the words this Jesuit from Burgos born in 1935 repeats. Companion of Amando López, another Jesuit from Burgos who was assassinated with Ellacuría in El Salvador twenty years ago, he is organizing the homage that from Burgos will pay tribute to those martyrs in November and which will be open to all the people of Burgos. "It is important to create solidarity, which is something that is not just the role of us Jesuits, but of all who work for international cooperation, because it is helping people to lift themselves up."

A few months ago you visited El Salvador. Has it changed much in the twenty years since the murder of your companions happened?

I think there have been important changes. At the economic level, there is no resemblance between the El Salvador of today and the one 20 years ago: much has been built, highways have been built, big supermarkets...It's true that there are still pockets of poverty , as many or more than before. On the political level, the change with the election of Funes (Mauricio Funes, of the Frente Farabundo Martí de Liberación won the election last March ending two decades of right-wing rule) is a hopeful step for El Salvador and all of Central America. He is a man who on his election day publicly remembered Romero, the poor and the victims, something that is rarely seen in politics, and he is going to try to govern for all. It is a radical change.

And the Salvadoran Church?

There is also a substantial change with the naming of the new Archbishop of San Salvador, Monsignor José Luis Escobar, who also when he was named made reference to Romero, to the victims and the people, using Gospel language that doesn't always appear.

The language of the principles of liberation theology...

More than liberation theology, it's the language of the Gospel, of Jesus of Nazareth. And that language, which ought to be the norm, isn't in the Church.

Can the traces of those martyrs still be felt?

Yes. Whether we like it or not, the assassins, who are still alive and still say that they didn't do it and that they don't have to ask forgiveness, in an example of lack of ethics, are nobody. However, the victims of that massacre are a reference point for the people, as models of a Christian university.

What must a Christian university be?

It should train leaders who will denounce injustice and stand up for truth and justice.

What did Ellacuría, Amando López and the others represent for the Company of Jesus?

Something very important. When they would tell Arrupe (a Basque Jesuit who was the Superior General of the Company) that the Company was bad, he would respond: How can it be bad if they killed some twenty Jesuits in recent years?

What kind of young people are being trained by UCA?

The UCA students come from the comfortable middle-class; it's a private university, and, despite state assistance, one has to pay. Ellacuría used to stress that a university is Christian and Catholic when it has quality of life and teaching. It's true that the UCA of today is not the same as it was twenty years ago (the assassins knew very well who they were killing), but it is without doubt a national reference point and weighty at the international political and human rights level. The opinion of UCA during the recent elections was very important.

Is it a sort of light, a beacon of conscience and thought in Central America?

I would say that it is a light and a hope, liberating thought even though it makes some people nervous. And, above all -- and this is very important -- because the excluded are not far from the lecture halls, but present in the analysis of the national situation.

One month before the massacre you were in Burgos with Ellacuría. How do you remember that meeting?

They were going to give him the Fundación Comín Prize in Barcelona and a few days before, he came through here to be with us. I asked him if he was afraid that they would kill him. He answered that he wasn't. He was afraid that they might kidnap and torture him, but he was not afraid of death. Ellacuría was a dreamer. I remember that he was giving a speech and he spoke of another reality, another place different from our own. I thought clearly that he was a person who intended to give up his life.

Because the risk was great.

He had had to leave El Salvador several times because they were coming for him.

And what was Armando like?

He was a good man, a cordial man, a wise man. He had a gift for being with people. When you ask those who knew him, they smile because he was kind and welcoming. He conveyed more through this welcoming kindness than through all the speeches and homilies. The beautiful thing about those Jesuits is that they never lost contact with the people in addition to the classes.

I remember them mixing with the people in the slums and the most marginalized townships. From Monday to Friday they gave classes at the university and on the weekends they went into these townships. You have to take into account that they did this at a time of war, when real atrocities were being committed without any respect for human rights. At that time they even had target practice on little children. That's real, that's the truth. In that context, having to go to the townships or the suburbs to say Mass or give catechism was not only celebrating the Eucharist, but coming into contact with violence, tragedy, human rights abuses, with the danger of being killed themselves.

Why were they so bothered?

Because for them, faith in Jesus of Nazareth was inseparable from justice; a faith that does not include justice is not a gospel faith. As Ignatius of Loyola says, they let themselves be affected by suffering people, and what they did was to respond from the truth. So, from the university they internationalized this atrocity -- the whole world became aware of it through them. And they made the Salvadoran government and the American government uncomfortable.

And why do their heirs still do that?

I believe that the Gospel of Jesus of Nazareth, in spite of living in a superficial and consumerist society such as we have in Europe, has something to say to the world. But something about hope, justice, kindness, reconciliation, peace. And that, for some systems, is not pleasing.

And the Vatican? Didn't it leave them a bit, let's say, abandoned?

The Church is like a family. There are many ways to experience it. There is one part that has taken a position in favor of the excluded of the world. Jesus loved everybody, but He was obsessed with the suffering of this world. There are men and women, religious and laity, who follow that line. So another part of the Church doesn't understand this? Well, what will we do?

But it's sad, isn't it?

Yes, but it's like it is in a family.

An investigation into the assassinations has been reopened, although 20 years later. Do you think the truth will end up being known?

It seems to me that the fact that those who are ideologically responsible for the assassinations are coming out is very important for justice. It is not about just looking for those who are responsible for the deaths of the Jesuits, that have to emerge, but also those who gave the orders. Why? Because the victims have a right to have their faces be publicly recognized. It is the same as what happened with Videla in Argentina and Pinochet in Chile. One must become aware that the victims have a face.

It seems that Latin America never stops ridding itself of populist and corrupt regimes with an eternal undercurrent of violence. Why?

The big problem is corruption. The most recent case we have seen is in Honduras, where the corrupt ones have been able to organize a coup d'état while justifying themselves through some laws and Catholic principles that they got out of nowhere. When there is a lack of ethics, violence comes. When a system is unsustainable because it lacks solidity and humanity, violence always appears.

The people, the poor, the oppressed are always the ones crucified: they are the saints.

That is what Jon Sobrino says. And so it is. Now, at a time of global crisis, benefits are privatized but harm is socialized. And that cannot be. It's that in the end the market, that iconoclastic god that is such an enemy of the oppressed people, collapses and ends up doing more damage to the disinherited. How terrible! That is why what impresses me is that in the face of the world crisis, when we hear the politicians, the excluded don't exist, they are not present in the analysis of the crisis. Deep down, they are trying to get out of the crisis through inhumane values. And history is going to repeat itself. Statistics for the last 20 years show that the number of poor people has not stopped increasing. It is ferocious capitalism that does not take into account human rights. Only profoundly human and profoundly believing people are able to confront this tremendous bull that is money for money's sake. Money is good, but when it is used badly it begets death.

Western democracies use the word "solidarity" a lot. Is it tangible and effective or is it smoke?

Affective solidarity is about 32 percent; effective solidarity goes down to about 17 or 18 percent. One continues to work for solidarity, yes. It is important, but the same economic crisis that has gone through the pockets of households has done the same with those of solidarity. But there will be solidarity to the extent that we learn to look at reality in a different way. For example, in Burgos there will be solidarity, inter-religious dialogue and value given to ethnicity if we learn to look at the 20,000 immigrants in the province in a different way. That is one of the challenges. And it is that society is changing. That is going to be very positive because these people also have their truth, their story, their life. As a Jesuit, I have learned how God speaks to us through the history that is coming.

Will it be much longer before social justice is achieved?

It is a dream, but it is not impossible. One must go towards it, because another world is possible.

In this sense, what does Obama represent?

He has been fresh air, a different way of positioning himself relative to other countries, with a stance of recognizing people, without subjugating them like Bush, who came and stomped on them, did. Obama has his faults and limitations but he is different. For millions of people he is fresh air. And we have to look a little beyond.

Is the Company of Jesus being put aside or covered up by new neoconservative groups?

The number of Jesuits has decreased, it's true, because age is unforgiving and there is a crisis in vocations. But at this moment there is a lot of hope, a great sensitivity to this whole world of dialogue with boundaries that are not between countries but between problems. I honestly believe that, though we have faults, obviously, there is a great vitality and a great concern to dialogue to help the world find the light.

Is this knowledge of the social reality what ails much of the Church?

It is a delicate subject, but there are many good people, with great sensitivity to the problems of today's world. In Honduras, the Dominicans have strongly denounced the coup d'état. Sometimes we are left with the scandals, abuses of power and arrogance -- those that are, have been and will be -- but there is another part that is walking hand in hand with men and women along the pathway of life. And there are many people in that caravan.

Do you think the Church should rethink some of its foundations to lead the caravan?

The Church would have to look more towards the Gospel to see how Jesus acted instead of looking at where we place our prestige, social status, and political and economic interests. And that is happening here and in other countries.

Jesus of Nazareth would now be in the Congo or some other terrible place. Or in a slum in Madrid. He would be working to heal, to liberate, to bring hope, to say that men and women have the same dignity, that the aged are a treasure and the living memory of the people and cannot be laid aside. Either the Church has that sensitivity and a commitment to it or it won't have any future.

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